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Before midterm races, Democrats look for lessons in Massachusetts loss

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By Lois Romano
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 4:12 PM

As Republicans gloated over their Massachusetts special election victory and Democrats looked for scapegoats Wednesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said he was moving aggressively to prevent further bleeding.

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Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who is taking heat for not seeing the Republican threat quicker, said the party's electoral arm will immediately elbow its way into the 33 campaigns competing in November to conduct a "forensic examination" of the messages and strategies in hopes of averting more defeats.

"Anyone who suggests that Tuesday was the result of one single factor is engaging in willful misinformation," he said.

"It was a perfect storm" of factors that allowed Republican Scott Brown to claim the seat held by Edward M. Kennedy for nearly 47 years. Among the multiple reasons for the loss, Menendez cited longtime resentment toward Beacon Hill politicians and the disenchantment of independent and swing voters.

Added a senior adviser who asked that his name not be used while criticizing Democrats: "We're losing independents in droves. . . . It's like we have the bubonic plague."

Menendez defended the DSCC's actions in Massachusetts. He said he saw a private poll on Dec. 22 that showed Martha Coakley 22 points ahead. "With that in mind, we thought we had a clear view that she was in a good position," he said. Unknown to him, the GOP had its own poll from a week earlier showing the race much closer.

While his Republican counterparts started quietly pushing money and support to Brown in mid-December, it was only two weeks ago that "alarm bells went off" for Democrats. At that point Menendez moved to have the committee take over the Coakley campaign and poured more than $2 million into the race.

"We went up [with ads]. I sent our political director and other staff to help facilitate turnout," he said. "We did what we could."

Menendez said that moving forward, Democrats and the DSCC, in particular, must "make sure every campaign is calibrated to the volatility of the electorate . . . that we are seen as agents of change.

"We have to be aggressive, and we have to show the contrast with the Republicans" who want to continue the "failed" policies of the Bush administration, he said.

"There has to be an early framing of the race," Menendez added, something Democratic critics said Coakley failed to do.

He said that among the factors contributing to Brown's success was that he was able to define himself as an agent of change, though he has been a state legislator for the past decade. Among the Democratic senatorial candidates running in November, Menendez singled out Robin Carnahan, Missouri's secretary of state, as someone who has so far successfully presented herself as a change agent, despite coming from a family of politicians.

The senator cautioned not to interpret Tuesday's results as an omen for November, when the political environment could improve with a stronger economy.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Menendez added that he had "no interest in sugarcoating what happened in Massachusetts. There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient."

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was first elected to the U.S. House in 1992. He was appointed to the Senate in 2006, and later that year successfully ran for a full six-year term.


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